Off the beaten track

“You will receive an Englishman…”, the message read. It was from Bob – my old friend from way back in Romania. These days, countries apart, we don’t get to see each other very often, but we try to keep up some semi-annual hiking adventures. The last time we took to the hills together was in Sarak National Park in 2014. Five years is too long, but with families and other commitments, the years easily sneak by.

So it was time to put things right. We’d talked of doing something for out 50th birthdays – his was last year, mine next – but right now we could only spare three days between us to squeeze in some action. Let’s call it a taste of greater things to come then; a prelude to more fitting, celebratory adventure next year.

Bob was excited to find out about my kayaking trips, and we thought about doing a two-day trip around the islands of Helsinki. But the weather wasn’t ideal – the winds a little too strong for my taste and skill level, and I didn’t want to put Bob in unsafe circumstances. Instead, I suggested a quick morning paddle, then a couple of days and nights hiking around the old favourite Nuuksio.

photo: bob blaker

photo: bob blaker

I’ve reached my limit with the main trails in Nuuksio, and I needed to get away from the madding crowds as much as possible. It’s hard to get a true wilderness experience in Southern Finland, but I hatched a vague plan to explore the lesser known paths  – one’s so rarely taken they barely registered on the map, just feint lines easily confused with contours, leading to small lakes in forgotten parts of the park.

We kept the route pretty open, planning only a potential campsite for that evening. My goal was to have a decent walk on the second day at least, and explore some kind of big loop that would take in as much unseen and less-travelled areas as possible.

We found a parking spot somewhere near Haltia, the information center, and shouldered our packs. For a change, I decided to walk without poles, just to see how it compared. Our packs were reasonably light, but as it was a short trip, we somewhat overcompensated for light packs with additional snacks. Hey, we hadn’t seen each other in a few years – what more reason do you need to take a family-sized pack of crisps with you?

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Following those small trails was oddly confusing, though that might have been more down to the crazy 1:15000 scale of our map. What seemed like a decent distance on the map would turn out to be just 500m. Things felt off somehow, but I guess it’s just the difference between packed-in Helsinki and empty Lapland: there a 1:50000 would appear sparse and empty. Here 1:15000 is a chaos of information and tiny details. Small scale details require a small scale map.

We reached Orajärvi – a medium-sized lake on the eastern side of the park – after a couple of kilometers wandering and chatting about the usual thing: the difference in landscapes, Brexit, anal bleaching...

As we were in no hurry, we stopped for a short break.

photo: bob blaker

The water was startlingly clear, a theme that would recur in the days ahead. It’s strange how two lakes next to each other can have very different characters; one clear and clean, the other red and murky. The brackish sea in these parts is prone to large blooms of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), which can make swimming in a hot summer a little risky, but this lake looked as clear as can be.

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Tempted as we were by the crisps, we refrained from opening them until we got to camp. We followed a trail around the shore of the lake – it seems most lakes in Nuuksio have a trail around them, even if it doesn’t appear on the map – until another route took us through some lovely cliffs covered in old growth forest.

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Below the cliffs, the map promised wetlands in an area named mustakorpi, but instead we found a quite dry, old trail leading up to the first of two potential sites we had identified for the night.

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On eastern side of Nuuksio, campsites are few and far between, and technically the rules of National Parks in Finland stipulate that you should only camp in designated campsites. It was clear from some of the places we had passed that this rule is bent every now and then, and I imagine as long as leave no trace principles are followed there’s no harm.

In any case, the absence of numerous campsites results in the absence of people too. Apart from a few orienteering participants nar the car, we hadn’t seen anyone else. That’s quite a different experience from the main trails, which resemble more hiking super-highways).

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We arrived at the first site, Pöksynhaara, a headland on Mustalampi lake, and scouted around for a potential pitching place. We had the WickiUp with us, and again I thought having a freestanding tent in the south does have its benefits, but I managed to find a place where the stakes would hold, even if the ground was sloping a little.

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This wasn’t the clearest lake, but we decided it would do. You can spend a lot of time walking back and forth searching for the perfect campsite, but as this was satisfactory we were happy to stay here.

After the pitching work was done, we enjoyed a well-earned aperitif, and opened the crisps.

And no, that’s not Jaffa in the bottle.

photo: bob blaker

photo: bob blaker

Whisky always tastes so much better in the fresh air, with a few kilometers behind you.

Food that evening was so so. I’ve been on a 90% vegan attempt for a while now, which makes the meat-centric dehydrated meals available somewhat unappetising. For the first night I tried some kind of chilli sin carne made inexplicably with couscous and quinoa. Why, God, why? A good chilli needs rice and with all the beans there’s a perfectly simple and satisfying recipe. It wasn’t awful, but I fail to understand the reasoning.

Anyway, I went old school for this trip in the cooking preparations and used my BushBuddy.

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It may take a while, and reqwuire a little more attention, but there is something just lovely in foraging for dry wood and feeding it to the BushBuddy as it silently burns everything to a cinder. It’s a peaceful, relaxing way to cook (and by “cook”, I mean “boil water”).

There wasn’t much in the way of wood there to make a fire, and rather than decimate the landscape we made ourselves comfortable in the tent, and investigated the other treats we had brought with us. Salt & Vinegar roasted peanuts! Yum! Haribo for dessert, too.

I slept unusually well. Often, the first night I’m out I sleep quite fitfully, but I pretty much slept through the night.

In the morning I took a walk around, enjoying the smaller details one can find when you have time to stop and look more closely at the world.

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After my morning oats we took a look a the map and made a rough plan for the day. We’d take an elongated circular route around to the north and then the west side of the park, trying again to avoid the crowds as much as possible.

First, we’d check out the next campsite, a few hundred meters away at Valkealampi lake.

I’m not usually one to regret choosing a campsite, but on this occasion, Valkealampi was clearly – literally – the better of the two. The small lake was crystal clear, and there were plenty of good tent spots, fireplaces, and best of all entry points to easily go for a swim.

As we walked around the lake, we kept finding better and better places. Ah, well. You can’t win them all. It was so nice that Bob suggested we could come back here that night.

“Well, we could…”, I said.

But I didn’t really want to, so there.

My aim was still to cover as much of the unseen part of the park as possible, and I didn’t really want to aimlessly walk in a big circle.

“We could keep it in mind, but what if these other lakes over here are even nicer? Maybe we should just get over there and find a nice lake? Or at least let’s make the final decision at lunchtime.”

So on we went.

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The second day was our “big milage” day – the day when I wanted to actually have a decent walk, and rack up some kilometers. As I said, the landscape down here is pretty packed, so I knew we wouldn’t be roaring through 30km or anything like that, but 15 would be a good starting point, and anything on top of that a bonus.

The first stretch took us up the long west bank of Suolikas lake. It was a pleasantly winding path, but it was odd to see a few houses on the east side of the lake.

After crossing an old forest road, we headed into more forest, but the light was quite lovely.

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As often happens, I found myself wondering about the origins of paths. In Britain, the history of paths, trails, roads, and old holloways are well known and researched. But the trails in Finland are not so well etched into the landscape of history. Maybe the smaller population throughout the ages had less feet to work with, or perhaps because there are no roman encampments or ancient trading routes. I was reading about the Ridgeway in England recently, and remembered roads and trails with familiar names rooted in historical use from my youth in Dover, and times spend then walking past Anglo-Saxon barrows. It’s almost as if you can’t avoid the ancient in the UK, but in Finland there’s more a sense of mystery; the ghosts are less well known.

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We continued on past a small lake, and for the first time in Finland I saw chanterelles (kantarelli) growing right by the trail. They don’t grow so much in lapland, and somehow I never saw them yet in Helsinki. Unfortunately there were only a few – no chanterelle quinoa risotto for us tonight.

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Around the top of Lummukas lake we crossed a small stream then kept losing the trail for a while. It had become even harder to follow in the section of park, clearly an area where few visit. The overgrown grass made locating the footsteps of those who had come before us tricky. But there’s a pleasantness in having to stop and try to figure out where you are, a heightened sense of alertness as you scour the map and become slowly more aware of your surroundings.

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We were heading for one of two lakes where we intended to stop for lunch, either Syvä-Antiäs or the larger Iso-Antiäs. We tried to take a short cut but that didn’t work out as we couldn’t find any sign of the path marked on the map other than a few red plastic blazes tied to trees. It was probably a ski trail, but it didn’t matter as there was an easier route anyway.

When we got to Syvä-Antiäs we found another beautifully clear lake. i scoped out a potential lunch spot on the other side with my camera lens, so we followed the small path around.

TomYum noodles, like whisky, also never taste as good as they do outdoors. As we ate, a few thunderclouds rolled in, but the air was warm. We were hot and sweaty from walking, and the water looked very enticing to me.

I walked along the trail a little more and found the perfect location for entering and exiting the water – a rocky shelf that dropped deeply into the water – deep enough that you couldn’t see the bottom. I went back to Bob, remembering his excitement at the thought of swimming earlier.

Usually I’m a bit hesitant to swim in lakes in summer. I’ve always been a bit skittish at the coldness, but this year something switched in me and I started to find it a lot easier to get in.

There was nobody else around, so we decided to make the most of it before any storms arrived. We had the lake to ourselves. it was lovely.

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The water was just right. I could have stayed there for ages, cooling off in the soft water.

Eventually we got out, dried off, and packed up. It was time to head to the west, but not before taking lazy route around Iso-Antiäs to take in the scenery.

Heading towards the western half of the park meant heading back towards the busier trails, but we tried as much as possible to avoid the main thoroughfares. There are plenty of lesser paths criss-crossing through the park where we found solitude, bar the occasional berry-picker.

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We checked the map again to decide where we would camp that night. The decision was influenced mainly by the time & distance we’d have to hike back to the car the next day. In the end we settled on the campsites around Iso-Holma, the same location I’d visited with the kids recently, but I thought we might find somewhere else discrete nearby so we could avoid having to listen to people’s portable bluetooth speakers and intimate conversations.

We passed Vähä-holma, a smaller lake to the north of Iso-Holma, and noted that it had some potential for a hidden, out of the way “wild camp” on the far side, but carried on to check the situation at Iso-holma anyway. As we neared, we saw plenty of people already making fires and noise, and I think we both were immediately turned off the idea of staying there amid the hustle and bustle of a busy campsite. We backtracked a couple of hundred meters and circled around the other lake, and found a spot that had clearly been used before by people who apparently found it difficult to “leave no trace”.

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The lake was clean and inviting, so it wasn’t long before we took off our sweaty clothes, donned our ultralight swimwear, and went for a refreshing dip.

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There was a perfect kitchen area too, as if nature had designed us a sofa and shielded table to prepare our food.

Tonight I would dine on an LYO Expedition nettle curry, which was actually quite good – packed full of chunky vegetables in a nettle-curry sauce.

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We finished our whisky and crisps, and pretended to look wistfully into the distance as the sun set.

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Next morning, we took advantage of the lake once again for a refreshing swim before breakfast. It felt a lot colder, but jump-started the day nicely.

There was a paddling of very friendly ducks in the lake, all female mallards. I imagine the previous visitors to the site were as generous in distributing their food as they were with their litter. Oddly, there was one lone duck that the others were giving a very hard time to. It had had its distinctive blue-feathered stripe removed – stripped of its colours.

We immediately felt sorry for this duck that the others repeatedly picked on. They would chase it away if it got too near to any morsels of food we might drop. We decided this kind of behaviour simply isn’t on, and favoured the lone duck with a spoonful of oats.

I mean, honestly ducks! Can’t we all just get along?

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The trek back to the car took us unavoidably along the busier paths through the center of the park. It was only 6 km, and we managed to take a few additional trails I’d not been on before, so it was peasant enough. But it’s always hard to find yourself amidst a sudden increase of people when you’ve been in solitude for a couple of days. It comes as a shock; a rude awakening. Along with the people, all your troubles start returning, and the mind gets distracted away from nature to the mundanities and banalities of day-to-day existence. Or maybe it’s just me.

We’d spent two days walking on vague, unmaintained trails, covered in roots and rocks, twisting and turning through the woods and around lakes as dictated by the landscape. On this last section, the trails were far more managed, and made more accessible for people. This is both a good and bad thing, I suppose. As I’ve said in other posts, it’s good that people can get out and enjoy nature, but it seemed to me that the amount to which that experience had been mediated was getting a bit ridiculous.

The long Reitti2000 goes through the park, which is designed as a hiking and mountain biking route. For much of the route it is a quite good trail, but there were sections we passed through that morning that would be classified as extremely technical for bikes – very deep roots, lots of rocks, and big holes. All very good fun. But then a few hundred meters further, the trail had been covered in very conspicuous-looking blue gravel.

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The gravel was extremely noisy. Every footstep was amplified to sound like the marching feet of an army. We couldn’t hear anything of the world apart from the constant crunch crunch crunch of our steps.

But the most bizarre question was why had this been put here? The trail was not in any way difficult. The path was coated in pine needles and small roots. If anything, the gravel made it harder to walk up or down hills, as it constantly slipped beneath our feet. How much has this “improvement” cost? It seemed totally out of place.

As we walked on things got even more absurd. Some sections of the trail had been selectively gravelled; parts remained untouched, while here and there a single small root had been surrounded by gravel, as if it would solve the enormous danger it presented to walkers.

I mean, look at this:

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Why that root? Why not the others near it?

Who decided that this root was the dangerous one? This trail isn’t wheelchair accessible, so there is no logic in making this kind of “improvement”.

It was very strange to experience this mediation of nature at the end of our hike, when for two days we had managed to encounter nature on equal terms, and get a sense of joining it rather than being protected from it.

In the end, we put all this behind us, and remembered the best parts of the hike: the smaller trails, the silence, the solitude, the unexpected swimming opportunities, the feel of wet grass against the legs, the wind in the trees, the verdant green of moss-covered rocks, a sip of whisky from a kuksa, the taste of a bursting bilberry on the tongue… These are the reasons we return.

On the way back, we started to make loose plans for that celebratory hike next year. It will need to be something fitting and spectacular. Somewhere wild and beautiful. Somewhere remote and maybe a little challenging.

Somewhere off the beaten track.

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